The Seven Best Simple Novels for EFL Students



In my previous article I looked at the many benefits of extensive reading which include gains in reading and writing competence, oral and aural skills, vocabulary growth, and increases in self-esteem and empathy.


It is also highly motivating for students to discover that they can read in English and that they enjoy it. For this reason it is essential that the books are interesting to students and at a level appropriate to their reading ability. If students find the books compelling and interesting, and can understand them, they may become more eager readers. However, finding books that are interesting to your students and at a level appropriate to their reading level is not always easy. For students from level A1-B1 I would strongly recommend using graded readers – books  which have been adapted by avoiding using difficult grammar and vocabulary for people learning a foreign language. Most of the main ELT publishers have graded readers series and you can find a list of these series at the end of the article.


While graded readers are a wonderful way of getting your students to read in English, at higher levels (B2.1 +) it can be a good idea to supplement graders readers with novels which have not been adapted for language learners. However, you have to be very careful when selecting these novels as it can be very discouraging and demotivating for students to read a novel and not understand the content.


In this article I’m going to look at the seven novels that have worked best with my students.


1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon




This wonderful, hilarious and moving book tells the story of the adventures of a young boy Christopher who has Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome often have difficulty in social relationships and in communicating, and this is certainly the case with Christopher. When he discovers the murder of a neighbour’s dog, he decides to investigate it. The story is told from Christopher’s point of view, and his explanations for everything he sees and hears are clear, logical  and easy to understand. The language used is very direct and straightforward.

My students have loved the story and Christopher, and also discovered a lot about autism.


2. Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah




Refugee Boy tells the story of Alem, a 14-year old boy whose father is Ethiopian and his mother Eritrean, and as these two countries are at war, Alem’s family is not welcome in either place. Alem has to flee from both Ethiopia and Eritrea and ends up as a refugee in Great Britain. Benjamin Zephaniah writes in a simple and clear style which students with a B1 + level have little difficulty understanding; he also exposes us to the complexity of life as a refugee. I have heard my students discussing the theme of refugees with an understanding and empathy which would not be possible without having read this beautiful and sad novel.


3. Animal Farm




Animal Farm is a satirical allegory for Communist Russia. It tells the simple and tragic story of what happens when the oppressed farm animals rebel to attain freedom from the farmer Mr. Jones. George Orwell’s writing style is very accessible. Indeed, Orwell was famous for the clarity of his writing ,  in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language he puts forward his 5 Rules for effective writing. It’s well worth showing them to your students and getting them to discuss the rules. Here are the 5 rules are:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.


4. The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros




The House on Mango Street is the story of Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina girl, and her life growing up in Chicago. Sandra Cisneros uses quite simple language and short sentences which make it relatively easy for EFL students to understand. One of the outstanding features of the book is that it can help students understand and empathise with a community which is very different from their own.


5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck




Of Mice and Men tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two  migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new jobs  during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Steinbeck’s compelling story is very short and told in generally quite simple language. However, there are a number of contractions such as ‘ain’t’, ‘why’n’t’, ”wanta’ and ‘gonna’ which you may like to explain to students before they read it.


6. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton




This-coming-of-age novel tells the story of a teenage gang in the 1960s and deals with typical teenager themes. The sentences are short and the language is quite simple. Although S. E. Hinton wrote the book in 1967, the themes still seem contemporary to the lives of students throughout the world. From my experience the book works best with teenagers and young adults.


7. The Giver by Lois Lowry




The Giver is set in a society which at first appears to be utopian, but as the novel progresses is revealed to be a dystopia. The main character is a young boy called Jonas who believes he is living in an ideal world until he is given his life assignment as the Receiver, and then begins  to understand the dark secrets behind his community. The story is told in short sentences and simple language. Although the book was written for young adults, it has been popular with many of my much older students too.


Have you used any of these novels with your students? Have you used any other novels which have been popular with your students? Let me know in your comments below!


7 Graded Reader Sites

  1. Helbling Languages
  2. Atama-ii
  3. Oxford Graded Readers
  4. Cengage
  5. Cambridge Readers
  6. Penguin Readers
  7. Macmillan Readers



Photo credit Aga Putra

31 comments on “The Seven Best Simple Novels for EFL Students

  1. Great list, thanks! My students have also liked Wonder by RJPalacio and The Boy in The Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. Generally child narrators are good.

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi Virginia,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. I don’t know Wonder by R J Palacio; I’ll have to check it out. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is a great book, my oldest daughter has just read it at school. I agree child narrators usually work very well.
      All the best,

  2. Roald Dahl’s collection of short stories called Kiss Kiss is great for adult students. Some are quite dark though.

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi Tim,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. The Roald Dahl collection you mention is excellent; I think short stories often work much better than whole novels.
      All the best,

  3. Dahl worked well with my classes in China and I discovered a you tube version of its screenplay to back it up. Lots of archaic language though; and this is the problem with novels in general, they are more for the upper int category

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi John,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. Yes, Roald Dahl seems to work with lots of students and there are many film adaptations of his books. Archaic language is a problem which makes lots of book difficult for EFL students.
      All the best,

  4. I wish I would be in a class who read all these novels and discussing about them..but in our time few students like reading..As a bookwarm,I can’t find anybody around me reading anything.Just the phones in teens’hands..

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi Nese,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. What a shame there aren’t more book worms like you!
      All the best,

  5. Like Virginia, I would highly recommend “Wonder”, by RJ Palacios. Last year we read it with our B2+ students, and they liked it a lot! Another good option for C1 students is “The Language of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It presents the topics of foster homes, adopted children, what happens to those children living in homes when they turn 18… and everything linked to flowers. It’s really nice!

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi Alba,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. I’ll have to check out The Language of Flowers – it sounds like a great book!
      All the best,

  6. María Valdés Solís says:

    Hi, Kieran,
    Last year we read The Girl on the Train in a Book Club I started for my B2 and C1 students. Those who joined the club enjoyed it and thought it was very entertaining. Not loads of literary value, but that’s not the purpose, I suppose…

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi María,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. Good to hear from you. That’s another book I don’t know, but I’m going to check it out. I don’t think that literary value is is a key factor in choosing a book; it’s more important that students enjoy what they read and engage with the characters and the story.
      All the best,

    2. Hi, just finished the girl on the train… I don’t really feel like recommending it to students, I personally I had to shut the book reading the pages about Megan having a bath with her little daughter:-(
      It remainded me the scene from trainspotting…. According to me it’s too strong…
      Ps: sorry for my English… I’m Italian mother tongue:-)

      1. Kieran Donaghy says:

        Hi Phoebe,
        Thanks a lot for commenting. I think the fact that you didn’t like the book and another person really loves it, reflects that we all have different tastes in books and also that it’s very difficulty for the teacher to decide on a book for the whole class to read which all the students are going to enjoy. Maybe for that reason it might be better for students, with the teacher guiding them, to decide for themselves which books they’re going to read. PS: Absolutely no need to apologise for your English – it’s a million times better than my Italian 🙂
        All the best,

  7. Could you recommend novels for a2 students that don’t speak English very well within the age of 13-16years old?

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi Roger,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. I don’t think that unadapted novels are suitable for students at such a low level; I’d recommend checking out the list of 7 graded reader websites and finding a graded reader at a suitable level which appeals to your students interests.
      All the best,

  8. My 16 years old students have read ‘The curious incident. They found it quite accessible. Thank you for the list. I will use one of them for their compulsory reading this year.
    And thanks also for the titles in the comments, it is very useful.

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi Ana,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. Glad to hear the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time worked well with your students. I’m happy you find the books useful 🙂
      All the best,

  9. Hello Kieran,

    This is the list I have been waiting for for years! I have been using authentic books for a long time and totally subscribe to what you say in the introduction, but I was getting a bit tired of using the same ones over and over. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Curious Incident, The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency and more recently Room have passed through many a course, so now I can bring in some variety. Great job!

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi Casey,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. I can imagine The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency working well with students; detective stories are often popular. I’m very happy you find the books useful.
      All the best,

  10. I have used the dairy of Anne frank a few times with teens and has always gone down very well… plus great resources online!

    1. Kieran Donaghy says:

      Hi Robbie,
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment. I know a lot of teachers who’ve used The Diary of Anne Frank with success. If a book has good resources it’s a big bonus as it can save you a lot of time.
      All the best,

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